U.S. Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich became the acknowledged leader of the conservative, business-oriented wing of the national Republican Party during the administrations of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.
Aldrich was born in rural Foster on November 6, 1841, the son of Anan E. Aldrich, a mill hand and farmer, and Abby (Burgess) Aldrich. He attended public schools in nearby East Killingly, Connecticut and then enrolled at East Greenwich Academy. After graduating from this secondary boarding school he went to work for a grocer in Providence with whom he eventually became a partner. In 1866, after a brief, non-combatant service in the Civil War, he married Abigail Chapman, a well-to-do woman with impressive antecedents. Together they had eleven children.
In 1869, Aldrich won a seat on the Providence City Council and served there until 1874, the final two years as its president. In 1875 he advanced to the state legislature and by 1876 he was Speaker of the House. He demonstrated a prophetic pattern of advancement.
In 1878, Republican U.S. Senator Henry Anthony and “Boss” Charles Brayton endorsed Aldrich for Congress. He won easily. After one term, the GOP-dominated General Assembly chose him to be the U.S. Senate successor to Ambrose Burnside who had died in office. On October 5, 1881, he began a Senate career that spanned nearly thirty years. In 1911, he stepped aside in favor of Henry F. Lippitt.
A protégé of Henry Bowen Anthony and a partner of Rhode Island Republican boss Charles R. Brayton, Aldrich owed his political longevity to a rural-based Republican machine that relied upon malapportionment and purchased votes to maintain dominance. In 1905, muckraker Lincoln Steffens examined the grassroots of Aldrich’s power in an exposé titled, “Rhode Island, A State for Sale.”
Had Aldrich been content merely to hold national office rather than wield national power, his association with Brayton would have been sufficient. However, Aldrich was ambitious, relentless, and resourceful in his pursuit of success, both political and financial. He cultivated friendships and business relationships with the great captains of industry and supported their demands for sound money (i.e., the gold standard), high protective tariffs, and minimal governmental interference with private enterprise. They, in turn, provided Aldrich with stock participations, loans, and other business opportunities that enabled the man many called “the General Manager of the United States” to achieve great personal wealth despite his humble beginnings as a grocery clerk in Providence.
Aldrich’s most notable alliance was the one forged with the Rockefellers when his daughter Abby married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. That union produced several prominent children, the foremost of whom, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, became governor of New York and vice president of the United States from 1974 to 1977.
The respect that Aldrich commanded from his contemporaries is epitomized by the frank admission of Theodore Roosevelt, leader of the Progressive Republicans: “Aldrich is a great man to me,” Roosevelt once confided to Lincoln Steffens, “not personally, but as the leader of the Senate. He is the kingpin in my game. Sure, I bow to Aldrich; I talk to Aldrich; I respect him, as he does not respect me. I’m just a president, and he has seen lots of presidents.”
Unfortunately for Aldrich, the progressive tide eroded his influence during his last term. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he failed in his efforts to create a central bank controlled by private banking interests, and his reversal of the downward trend of the Payne Tariff in 1909 helped to set off a wave of insurgent protest that eventually split the Republican Party. However, he did back and introduce (without enthusiasm) a resolution proposing the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the federal government to impose a tax on incomes. This measure, initiated by Senator Norris Brown of Nebraska, passed Congress in July 1909 and was ratified by three-fourths of the states by February 1913.
Although Congress would not accept Aldrich’s original plan for a central banking system under private banker auspices, it did approve other banking proposals he developed in concert with key American financiers when he chaired the National Monetary Commission. In 1913, two years after Aldrich retired, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, a law containing many elements derived from the Aldrich plan, thereby creating the modern Federal Reserve System. Despite his acknowledged contribution to this new financial system, Aldrich spoke out against it, because it gave the president power to appoint the board of governors and permitted the fifteen reserve banks to issue notes in a manner that he regarded as inflationary.
Aldrich spent his final years in his magnificent mansion on Warwick Neck overlooking Narragansett Bay, directly across the water from Samuel Colt’s spacious Bristol estate. One wonders how each felt while gazing at the other’s success. The Aldrich property is now owned by the Diocese of Providence as Our Lady of Providence Seminary, and the Colt property is presently a beautiful state park. Aldrich’s Providence mansion on Benevolent Street is now the headquarters of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Perhaps the best assessment of the controversial senator from Rhode Island has been provided by historian Jerome Sternstein: “In reality he was the incarnation of triumphant capitalism. Convinced that unfettered business enterprise had infinite capacity to produce the good life, at minimal cost, and therefore persuaded that in providing a hospitable legislative environment for business, he was doing an invaluable service for the country, he was the practicing political equivalent of the great captains of industry.”
Senator Aldrich died in New York City on April 16, 1915 and is buried in Swan Point Cemetery. The most incisive analysis of Aldrich and his career can be found in the writings of Jerome L. Sternstein. The book Old Money (New York, 1988) by Aldrich’s great-grandson and namesake offers an intimate, candid, and interesting picture of the senator and his distinguished descendants.